Examining Subtypes of Sex Offenders

A very interesting study has recently been published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, discussing the various subtypes of sexual offenders and their corresponding personalities.

A distinction was made between four groups: paedophilic offenders, non-paedophilic offenders, rapists and a control group of non-sexual offenders.

What is a non-paedophilic offender?

It might sound like an oxymoron, considering that we’re discussing people who commit sexual crimes against children, but a distinction is made in the literature between those who claim to be attracted to children (paedophilic offenders) and those who claim to be attracted predominantly to adults, but who have committed sexual crimes against children. This latter subset are defined as ‘non-paedophilic’, due to the root words from which the term ‘paedophile’ is taken meaning ‘love of children’.

The study

The study aimed to look at different personality types of offenders, with a view to enabling social services and the justice system to provide useful intervention for the people who commit these crimes.

164 male convicted offenders were assessed, of whom 50 were rapists, 20 were paedophilic child molesters, 43 were non-paedophilic child molesters, and 51 were non-sexual offenders.

Four questionnaires were given to each participant: the Adult Attachment Scale, which measures a person’s levels of security, anxiety and avoidance; the Interpersonal Behaviour Survey, which distinguishes between assertive and aggressive behaviours and provides a scale for each; the Brief Symptom Inventory, which provides a brief assessment for psychological problems; and the Socially Desirable Response Set Measure, which evaluates a person’s tendency to give what they perceive to be socially desirable responses, rather than an accurate response.

The results

The results showed distinct differences between each group of offenders.

Paedophilic offenders were more likely to present anxiety in adult relationships than non-paedophilic offenders.

Non-paedophilic offenders were less aggressive compared to rapists and non-sexual offenders, and were less assertive than rapists.

Rapists were the group that scored the highest on aggression.

Further research is required – the group of paedophilic offenders in particular was quite small in comparison to the other groups studied – but the study seems to indicate that different types of offenders have different personality profiles, and therefore any interventions ought to be conducted in different ways depending on the type of offense committed.

The full study can be found in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine via ScienceDirect.

What Effects Does Child Sexual Abuse Have On Adult Life?

15301376636_8ace6d2f1eThe title of this post is quite broad, and so is the study we’re discussing. It’s an ambitious task: to look at a broad array of adult roles and see which ones are the most likely to be affected by historic child sexual abuse, and what the effects are.

The research was conducted through a literature review of studies published since 1980. De Jong et al looked at the fulfilment of adult roles such as marriage, employment and parenting, with a focus on whether – and to what extent – a history of sexual abuse had an effect on people’s psychological and physical functioning in these roles.

Perhaps surprisingly, the results were not entirely straightforward. The attainment of the roles per se wasn’t significantly affected by the abuse suffered in childhood; however, the quality of these adult roles was affected.

I’d be interested to read the full study, as I’d like to know how the researchers are defining ‘quality’, but it’s behind a paywall so unfortunately I can’t access it. I am intrigued though, and I think it’s certainly an interesting area of study – there’s no doubt that child sexual abuse has some effect on adulthood, but it’s interesting that it tends to affect the quality of life rather than its generic categories.

Apparently the most consistent findings showed a link between child sexual abuse and physical intimate partner violence in adulthood. In other words, people who were sexually abused as children are more likely to end up with a partner who abuses them physically. This isn’t entirely surprising and tallies with my own prior research, but I’d be interested in looking a bit more closely at this link and trying to get to the reasons behind it.

The study is published in Aggression and Violent Behaviour and will be available online from the 2nd of May 2015.

photo credit: Sometimes… via photopin (license)

Guys, I Really Am A Ravenclaw!

Which Harry Potter house are you in? Ask anyone of a certain generation and you’ll probably receive an answer. J.K. Rowling’s series of books sparked huge international interest, and expanded into films, games, a real-world studio tour… the works.

To cope with this growing demand (or perhaps just because she wanted to), Rowling put together Pottermore, a site where fans can get together, play through challenges and unlock elements of the stories that aren’t mentioned in the books. They can also get sorted into one of the four Hogwarts houses – Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Slytherin – to find out about their personality.

But what does your Harry Potter house really say about you?

Without wanting to sound like a clickbait article title, it’s now possible to find out, or at least to measure some associated characteristics.

Crysel et al‘s new research paper in Volume 83 of Personality and Individual Differences aims to answer this question. The researchers asked fans from online Harry Potter groups to tell them which house they’d been sorted into on Pottermore, then asked them to complete a personality measure.

The results were intriguing.

Ravenclaws (my house!) are “known for wit and learning”, according to the books, and the study found that fans who had been sorted into this house on Pottermore scored highly on the ‘need for cognition’ scale.

GIF-bellatrix-lestrange-31336859-250-157Slytherins, who are “known for using any means to achieve their ends”, scored highly on Dark Triad traits. What are Dark Triad traits? Narcissim, Machavellianism, and psychopathy. Sound like Bellatrix to you?


Surprisingly, however, the other two houses didn’t bring back the results the researchers had expected. They saw no correlation between Gryffindor (known for bravery) and extraversion or openness, and no correlation between Hufflepuff (known for loyalty) and the need to belong.

Perhaps there’s something about Ravenclaws and Slytherins that just makes us relate even more to our houses than other personality types. But we’ll leave that for future research.

Which house are you in? Do you think your result is accurate?

Full research article available via ScienceDirect.

Why Does Burnout Happen To Students?

Researchers at a Korean university have been studying the links between perfectionism, motivation and burnout in academic students.

I found the concept interesting because I’ve always been very motivated to study. Not necessarily to acquire pieces of paper with high marks on them, but to further my own learning. As a teenager I was constantly being told by my teachers that I was “doing too much”; advice which I stubbornly ignored as I added more and more A-level subjects to my teetering pile of exam preparation papers.


As an adult I’ve become a little more balanced, though my friends may not entirely agree. I’m still very motivated. I love learning and I enjoy efficiency, and where possible I try to learn at least one new thing every day. Sometimes this is just discovering that a city I’ve never been to before is very beautiful; sometimes it’s checking out a mathematics textbook from my local library and solving equations late into the night.

So I was interested to read the results of a study that focuses on precisely these points: if someone’s really motivated, and studying because they want to, then are they still likely to burn out?

It would seem not.

Chang et al surveyed 283 students, studying three areas: perfectionism, motivation, and academic burnout. The results were interesting (and I particularly like them because they back up my own arguments for being a bit of a workaholic).

They discovered that students who were intrinsically self-motivated – who drew their motivation from within; from a love of the subject they were studying, for example – presented as self-oriented perfectionists and had comparatively lower chances of burning out. In other words, there is a correlation between doing something because you want to, and because you love it, and it not making you ultimately burn out.

On the other hand, students who were socially-prescribed perfectionists – those who were pushed by parents, peers or similar to become “perfect versions” of themselves – were extrinsically motivated and had much higher chances of burning out.

In other words: do what you love, love what you do. That way, you can keep going even when other people might have burned out long ago.

The full study is available via ScienceDirect.

photo credit: Contemplate via photopin (license)

My Personal Inspirational Women for International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme is Make It Happen, which presumably means thinking about all the things you want to do and ensuring they get done. Something I struggle with from time to time, because I channel Kierkegaard a bit too strongly:

“Naturally, every person wants to be active in the world in accordance with his abilities, but this in turn implies that he wants to develop his abilities in a particular direction, namely in that which is best suited to his particular personality. But which direction is that? Here I am confronted with a great question mark. Here I stand like Hercules, but not at a crossroads. No, here there are a great many more roads, and it is thus all the more difficult to choose the right one. Perhaps it is precisely my life’s misfortune to be interested in far too many things, but not decisively in any one thing. My interests are not all subordinated under one heading, but are all coordinated.”

– Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Joakim Garff, p.16

Oh Søren, sometimes I think you’re the only one who understands me.

Anyway, where was I? Right. Women’s Day. Trust me to manage to bring Kierkegaard into it somewhere.

I thought I’d post a few of the women whom I’ve found inspirational throughout the years, for a whole host of different reasons. Some whose careers I still follow, others not so much, but all of whom have been instrumental in helping me see that I could do all sorts of different things.

anigif_enhanced-6546-1403521073-25Captain Kathryn Janeway. That’s right, Star Trek. Start as you mean to go on. (Prior warning: there will probably be a lot of Star Trek in this post.)

Janeway inspires me because she’s strong and in control. She finds things difficult sometimes but she powers on through. She cares about her team and she lets them know it, but they also know that at the end of the day, she’s the boss and she calls the shots. She has an analytical mind and loves science, but she doesn’t tear people down for holding beliefs that are different from her own. She understands the importance of people’s personal beliefs and development paths and tries not to step on their toes. Unless you mess with her. Then she’ll shoot. Pew-pew-pew! Seriously though, she’s amazing.

Alana Davidson. Not a fictional character but a teacher at my old school. A capable, intelligent, strong woman who takes no shit. While I was at school, she had a reputation for being a bit terrifying, but she has a heart of gold. She doesn’t do the whole mushy-cuddly thing, which is good because neither do I, but she’s the kind of person who will be there for you when you really need her, and who will do her absolute utmost to help you out. Even when you don’t know what you need.

When my family had no money, rather than doing what most people did and trying to help me out in ways I was too immature and proud to accept (giving me lunch money), Alana got me a job. She pushed me hard in class because she knew I was capable of it, and she encouraged me to do what I knew was best for myself, but unlike a lot of other people she didn’t just discount the views of those who were discouraging me from getting an education. She understood that life is a complex balance of a whole load of different things and she didn’t patronise me by pretending to know my life better than I did.

She also had this fantastically irritating habit of snapping “Scarlett! Head UP!” at me if I was walking along staring at the floor when she passed me in the corridor. At the time, I found it a bit annoying (to put it mildly), but gradually I realised that she was applying basic psychology – if you look like you’re going to face the day, you’re more likely to do it – and it actually worked. Even now, if I’m having a bad day and I notice myself starting to look less than cheerful when I’m walking down the street, I hear her voice in my head, and it helps.

Barbra Streisand. Do I needanigif_enhanced-buzz-30493-1398353546-25 a reason? She’s beautiful and she has bucketloads of character. Plus an amazing voice, obviously. She could have easily given in to the demands of others, tried to make herself into something she wasn’t, and become a run-of-the-mill popular music artist, but instead she stayed true to herself and is now the official Queen of Music. Says me. You’re not allowed to argue.

From Streisand I learned that sometimes the best answer to people who pull you down for being yourself is to be even more yourself at them. It confuses them and eventually they either just give up or they end up loving you and feeling confused about it.

My ex-mother-in-law. She’s a very private person so I won’t mention her name or what she does, but she’s inspirational because she’s a strong, badass lady who does what she sets out to do. Plus, she cares a lot about the people who matter to her and about making the world a better place.

Deanna Troi. What’s that? Another Star Trek? But of course.

Troi was my first proper memory of Star Trek. I watched TNG before any of the other series; I’m not sure how old I was, but I was old enough to know that I wanted to have a job that had something to do with psychology when I was older. Seeing this effortlessly beautiful and totally badass space princess sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise was in no small way an influence on my career.

tumblr_mm3jlhNBNb1qd5tdto5_250She also wasn’t afraid to show her softer, more vulnerable side. In fact I’d say she spent most of the time being nice to people and only became an angry badass when absolutely necessary. I like this about her. I like that she had a chocolate obsession and wasn’t sure what to do about her relationship with Commander Riker and hung out with Beverly doing yoga and giggling about things. I think there’s a lot to be said for allowing yourself to be a woman, even if you’re working in a man’s world. (Everyone who’s ever worked with me is now shaking their head in confusion at how far removed this is from how I do things.)

Sunitha Krishnan. She runs Prajwala, an Indian NGO that rescues people who have been trafficked into the sex industry, rehabilitates them and reintegrates them into society. I can’t possibly do her justice, so here’s a video of her speaking at TED:

Esma Redzepova, partly because she’s Romany. Representation really matters, you know. Seeing someone you personally relate to on a screen, or listening to their music or hearing them speak, gives a certain amount of confidence. Or at least that’s always been the case for me.

And I think this is kind of the point of Women’s Day, and Black History Month, and all the other times when we 002190-001celebrate minority groups who aren’t always well-represented in mainstream culture. It’s really important to have people you can relate to in positions of influence. Otherwise, how do you know you can get there yourself?

As well as being an amazing singer and a great representation of Romany life, she’s also just a wonderful human being. During the 1970s and 1980s, she fostered 47 children. She is a cultural ambassador for Macedonia and holds a diplomatic passport. She works with a lot of different groups and this in itself does a huge amount to spread goodwill about the Romany people.

Also, she’s totally, unashamedly herself, and she wears giant colorful turbans and bright clothes. How could you possibly not love her?

2975_sarah-woodSarah Wood. The co-founder of Unruly, the company I used to work for, and a doer of many things. Sarah is an academic, a company director, a mother to three wonderful children, a writer, a manager, and probably about a hundred other things I’ve forgotten about. Her experience is wide-ranging; her life to date has been as broad as it has been long, and there’s no sign that she’ll be slowing down anytime soon.

As well as taking a chance on a slightly odd eighteen-year-old when she hired me, Sarah demonstrated that you could be personable and also be a leader, and that it’s OK to have a lot of interests and do a lot of things. She also proved time and time again that I could rely on her if things got tough in my personal life, but she expected excellent work at all times, something which made me greatly respect her and which I tried to carry on when I started managing my own teams.

B’Elanna Torres, because it’s about time for some more Star Trek.

I love B’Elanna because she’s not perfect. She’s a badass, but she’s also not always in control of herself. She gets angry, she finds things difficult, she sometimes makes really stupid decisions. But she’s great at her job and she rises to the rank of Chief Engineer on a starship that’s run by the very organisation she’d been fighting against.


B’Elanna showed me that imperfections aren’t all that bad. Which was a difficult lesson to learn, because I am traditionally quite the perfectionist. But Torres learns to take even the parts of herself she doesn’t like and turn them to her advantage.

Also, she’s half-Klingon, half-human, full badass, and is often the person I think about when I feel like giving up on something but know I might succeed if I just keep trying.

There are so many more amazing and inspirational women I could (and probably should) mention, but this post is long enough already so I’ll leave it there for now. I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by such great female role models and to have watched Star Trek at a formative age, this being one of the few shows where women and men are openly shown to be equal.

What about you? Who are your top inspirational females?

P.S. Do I say ‘badass’ too much? I think I say ‘badass’ too much.

Why We Should Talk to Terrorists

23232Last night I went along to a public lecture by Jonathan Powell at LSE. It was called Why We Should Talk to Terrorists and was discussing people’s reticence to engage in conversation with terrorists and his own experience of negotiating with various terrorist organisations, most notably the IRA.

I went partly because I’ve been thinking about starting a new piece of research about terrorism for a while, and Powell’s view seemed to back up my own thoughts about there not being very much psychological research about understanding the behaviour and ideology of terrorists.

It is, in my opinion, a fascinating area of study and one that is certainly topical. I took copious notes throughout Powell’s lecture (detailed below) and ended up impulse-buying a copy of his book, Talking to Terrorists, which is out now.


In order to negotiate with terrorist groups, you need to be willing to put yourself in their territory and demonstrate trust.

Northern Ireland was the most difficult terrorist negotiation with which he was personally involved.

There is no such thing as a single model for dialogue with terrorist groups; all conflicts have different resolutions, but there are lessons that can be learned.

Governments always say they won’t talk to terrorists, but they almost always do so in the end. We have a collective amnesia about this, but we ought to remember it.

The main arguments people use against opening a dialogue are appeasement, legitimising and rewarding bad behaviour. Powell believes all of these to be invalid.

There seems to be no real alternative to talking if the group has genuine support; you can’t “police them out”. Decapitation – i.e. removing the leader – doesn’t usually work.

“If there’s a political problem, you have to find a political solution to it, not a military one.”

It’s difficult for democratic governments to be seen to talk to terrorists. People do understand in time, though. Governments will usually use intelligence agencies for these kinds of negotiations rather than speaking to them directly; for example, the SIS was used in communications with the IRA.

You need a level of bipartisanship when negotiating for peace. For example, Tony Blair supported John Major’s efforts to negotiate with the IRA; it would have been much more difficult if he hadn’t. In places where the government’s opposition party is working against the leading party, negotiating becomes almost impossible.

It is much easier if a third party is involved, but this can be difficult for a government. They fear a loss of control. However this has improved since the end of the Cold War. Sometimes this is the UN or a non-threatening government with a non-colonial past, e.g. Norway. Sometimes NGOs can now also play a part.

Making contact with/finding armed groups can be difficult. Upon making first contact with one terrorist group, the negotiator was told “No one has tried to talk to me in thirty years.” Sometimes you can find them in jail, e.g. starting conversations with Mandela in Africa. The point of first contact is to build trust; these groups want people to listen to them. Often you have to do a lot of listening, sometimes thousands of hours. It’s not just about listening, though, but actually hearing what they’re saying; understanding the nuances.

This can be difficult: sometimes mediators get a form of Stockholm syndrome or start “going native”, sympathising too much. Often terrorists live in a (physical and) mental ghetto, only communicating with those who share their views.

At some point an academic stalemate is reached, in which both sides realise they can’t win and it becomes uncomfortable.

There is a problem with these mutually hurting stalemates if they are too comfortable. Both sides need to be feeling the pain in order for negotiations to properly get under way.

Strong leadership is important for a successful peace process, e.g. Nelson Mandela.

“It’s when a leader thinks that a problem can be solved and that he can do it that it gets solved.”

Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe the problem of the IRA could be solved. John Major believed that it could be solved but that he couldn’t solve it. Tony Blair believed that it could be solved and that he could solve it, and that is when the negotiation process stepped up.

Almost no preparations seem to be made for negotiations, and they need to be. Negotiation isn’t an event, it’s a process.

“The good news is there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The bad news is there’s no tunnel.”

Your job as a negotiator is to build the tunnel: put in place a process that allows negotiations to happen.

You need ingenuity to finish a negotiation. Getting to an agreement is not the conclusion. Usually it then takes several years to implement.

Terrorism isn’t going to go away. The only tools we’ll ever have are fighting them and talking to them. We also have to deal with the communities in which they move.

An agreement/conclusion is generally built on failures. Strange thing that happens in negotiations: you end up at a place of peace which seems inevitable once you’re there but which previously seemed insoluble.

Sometimes people try to use a process to manage a situation rather than to actually solve it. You do need a process in order to get to an agreement.

There should be no limit on whom we talk to; sometimes you can’t properly negotiate, but it’s worth talking. Each time we meet a new group, we say we can’t talk to them, but eventually realise it’s the only solution.

“Their rationality tends to be found out when you sit down and talk to them.”

What could we talk to ISIS about? There are genuine concerns of the Sunni population in Iraq and Syria which make ISIS’s life easier and which need to be addressed.


1. Should there be an International Justice Court? Could this provide a platform for community groups to deal with people who are ‘above the law’, e.g. political and religious figureheads? 

There already is an international court (ICC) but it wouldn’t help. Terrorism feeds on grievances but it tends to be frustrations about people not being able to get what they want through political means.

2. Hostages – should we engage in negotiations? 

This is always a difficult question because it’s so emotionally charged. Of course if you were being held hostage you’d want your government to negotiate for your release, but hostage ransoms is one of the main ways terrorists fund their organisations, therefore by bowing to their requests you’re supporting their cause.

3. Colombian government – what measures should they take to deal with the eroding trust in the institution of government? 

The public often want difficult things, e.g. a peace agreement with no price. The ICC has changed a lot; now you can’t have amnesties and let people off because the ICC argues that without justice you can’t come to a proper agreement. Very difficult balance; Colombia will be the guinea pig for this kind of situation moving forward.

4. Is there any way to factor in the behavioural sciences (and awareness thereof) into counter terror?

Yes, definitely. Psychology and anthropology are very important. These are the skills that make a real difference. Currently the literature is scarce but it is a field that is likely to grow over the coming years.

5. What are your conclusions on what happened to Terry Waite?

He deserves credit for trying to negotiate; it’s a shame he got captured.

6. Are mutually hurting stalemates a prerequisite for negotiations? If not, whose is the prerogative to start negotiating? 

Mutually hurting stalemate is a useful tool.  You have to keep trying to negotiate; don’t wait. Most times you’ll be frustrated, but keep trying. Responsibility for this rests with the government. Governments always try military solutions first; when this doesn’t work they sometimes resort to other methods e.g. killing people, sometimes they up the ante, etc. Often this doesn’t make a difference.

7. Most of the literature on terrorists is written by psychologists who have little expertise in actual negotiations. What is your view on academic input? Is there something missing? 

There is crossover between the literature on negotiation and terrorism. It’s useful but it’s unripe. It’ll be a couple more decades before it’ll really be a proper academic field.

8. What are the personalities of terrorists and negotiators? 

A certain amount of humility is required to be a negotiator. In terms of terrorist leaders, to be successful in negotiations you need to have someone who thinks politically about an issue in order to have a political discussion.

9. What about insurgencies and disparate groups with no organisation / military response? 

The importance of a group being coherent and cohesive is crucial. Boko Haram is a good example of this: it’s not cohesive so you can’t make peace with the whole thing.

10. How to define the parties: who are the terrorists? Who are the ‘we’? 

Terrorism is not a useful term. Terror is a tactic that can be used by anyone, and often the people who we start off by calling terrorists we end up welcoming and even celebrating, e.g. Nelson Mandela. Unless you understand this you will never get anywhere.

The talk was fascinating and a real insight into the mind of a negotiator. Needless to say the views above are those of Jonathan Powell rather than my own, but it’s certainly given me some things to think about if I do decide to pitch some ideas for a study on terrorists.

LSE run public events on a regular basis, you can find out more about them here.

Who Needs to Think When You Have a Smartphone?

When was the last time you did maths in your head? Dividing up the bill at a restaurant has become much easier now that everyone has a smartphone and there’s no need for mental acrobatics. Likewise, if you’re debating a point with a friend and you reach an impasse (or even just get a bit tired of arguing), you can easily pull out your smartphone and find out who’s right.

A group of researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada have been studying this phenomenon among smartphone users, and have published an interesting study entitled The brain in your pocket: Evidence that smartphones are used to supplant thinking.

Barr et al frame smartphone usage as an example of what they term the ‘extended mind’. What does this mean?

5551772922_61255e9b24Like we were saying before, it means that we no longer rely on our brains for some of the analytical types of thinking that can easily be passed on to a smartphone. Their study relies on already existing data which suggest that, given the choice, people will forego analytical thinking, which requires a significant level of effort, in lieu of quick and easy intuition.

Across three studies, it was discovered that people who are generally prone to thinking more intuitively and less analytically when given problems to test their reasoning abilities were more likely to rely on their smartphones for information in day-to-day life. However, the amount of time spent using a smartphone for entertainment or social networking had no effect, and nor did proneness to boredom.

Instead, it seems that people, and particularly those who rely on a more intuitive way of thinking generally, are using their smartphones as a sort of extension of their minds, passing on certain higher cognitive functions such as analytical and mathematical skills to their devices.

The full study can be accessed in volume 48 of Computers in Human Behaviour.

photo credit: LG전자, 고성능 스마트폰 내세워 북미시장 공략 via photopin (license)

Parental Expectations, Perfectionism and Spirituality

A fascinating study from the University of Michigan has recently revealed a correlation between perfectionism, spirituality and parental expectations.

Chang et al examined the relationships between perfectionism and spirituality in a sample of college students. They found that students who exhibited perfectionist behaviours, such as maintaining excessively high personal standards and organisational skills, also scored highly on a spirituality scale.

100_0556.JPGUpon conducting regression analyses, the team found that dimensions of perfectionism were also unique predictors of different dimensions of spirituality, and that parental expectations were a positive predictor for all three dimensions of spirituality being studied.

Interestingly, maladaptive dimensions of perfectionism, such as concern about making mistakes or parental criticism, were negatively associated with spirituality.

Personally, I would be interested in seeing an extension of this study in which the religious beliefs of the adult students were charted against those of their parents, in particular looking at those who had converted to a different religious faith upon growing up. Presumably Chang et al‘s results indicated that the level of spirituality remains the same regardless of the beliefs themselves, but I believe it would be interesting to look into conversion rates, compared with the general population, and any potential differences in fervency of belief between those who had converted to a different spiritual belief system and those who had remained with the beliefs of their parents.

The full study can be found in volume 79 of Personality and Individual Differences.

photo credit: 100_0556.JPG via photopin (license)

Notebook Scribblings – Part Two

The other day, my computer broke and I had to find the receipt to check whether it was still in warranty (it wasn’t). This led to a frantic scrambling through the drawers in my office, where I found several cardboard boxes marked ‘receipts’. When I opened one of them, out fell a load of pieces of paper that definitely weren’t receipts, which turned out to be notes I made on scraplets of paper between the ages of about 17-21.

I don’t know what I meant by some of them, but perhaps typing them up will jog something in my memory and I’ll end up solving the Riemann hypothesis. More likely, I’ll never work out what most of them meant and will remain as confused as I no doubt was when I wrote them.

Anyway. Here goes.

Did they need their solitude? Wise women and cunning folk in pre-Christian society. Set apart because “wisdom” (of their sort) springs partly from solitude, but everyone knew who they were. When Christianity came along, it was all about the community becoming a homogenous mass of belief; anyone on the outskirts was immediately and automatically viewed with suspicion?

Role of imagination in forming the world. Strong desire. Will.

The overcoming of matter

JpegInterior glasses through which knowledge passes
Falling into the traps of the antinomies

(No, surprisingly, I wasn’t on drugs. Just weird.)

Perhaps I wore a hairnet of the mind,
To stop trailing tendrils
Across my thoughts.

(Still not on drugs. Somehow.)

Why is it that the very successful always have to break out of the cycle? If the cycle were really that great, wouldn’t the most successful be the ones who stayed in it?

JpegIs this the bread? I think it is. But maybe that’s just because we’re observing it; maybe it’s not really there at all. And maybe we’re not really going to eat it. And maybe the universe is fractal and Einstein was wrong. But right now it’s 4.00 in the morning and I don’t really care.

It’s all about definitions. Once you know the word, you know the thing.

Is there a universal linguistic form?

Correlation between subjects chosen to study at A-level and personality type/susceptibility to certain types of mental illness

To cut a long story short: An essay on contemporary culture

Why is human life so full of grotesque irony?

Disappear in a puff of logic

Ayez donc le coeur si plein, que la vengeance ne peut y trouver place.

Boethius – simultaneous observation
Existence as a temporal concept

Can you predict that which is undetermined?
Is Jung talking?

Can potentiality have a history?


To make a promise is to vouch for oneself as future. Such is the long history of the origin of responsibility. Responsibility without promises?

Pregnant with the future

Without causation, would life be suspended?

“Some things are so important that they cannot be communicated directly.” – Søren Kierkegaard

If we project words onto god, how do we know we’re hitting our target? Couldn’t we equally be projecting god onto words? The priority is god’s speech about godself, and everything else flows from that.

“Deus est circulus cuius centrum est ubique, cuius circumferentia vero nusquam.”

Is Jung talking about god, or about an aspect of the self that he’s calling god? Is there an aspect of the self with which we can know the reality of god? Or is this god?

God transcends the categories that the human mind can use, but the knowledge of god is caused by “psychical collision”. With what?

“The movement towards god is through interiority.”

Dieu est lieu?

Does god lie on the outside of the limits of what our reason can handle?

The inner reality of selfhood; how do you know that ‘the god’ encountered in the self is really distinct from the self?

Is religion what you do with your solitude?

Prayer is a ritual whose point lies in itself

JpegStrange, isn’t it, how  you can suddenly wake up and see the world through a haze, as if it isn’t really there. Or perhaps it is there, and you’re not.

Is movement any more than imagination?

“‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, is there a sound?’ Forget the sound, is there a tree?” – Peter Gallagher

What is life a tangent from?

“It is in mathematics that our thinking processes have their purest form.” – Penrose, Shadows of the Mind. Looking at his views re. Goedel’s theorem, does this mean that thought, in its purest form, is not sound? 😉

Might the cosmos not exist without our understanding? And might that not be true of ouselves? “Things are the way they are because we understand them.”

Can an actual infinite ever ‘exist at a particular time’?Jpeg
What if paradox IS the answer? pcq souvent on y arrive !

Do there have to be words about god for human beings to know god?

…reach the final point, where self-consciousness is conscious of itself.

What is it like to be, and to know non-being as my horizon?

Could we apply the notions of nonbeing and non-existence discussed in the introduction to Plato’s Sophist in a direct relationship with the concept of nothing in philosophy of mathematics?

There are several more, but I’ll leave it there for now. I do enjoy ploughing through old notebooks, though. It allows me to reknow myself as I was several years ago. And in some ways, I strive to recapture the time when everything was philosophy. I’ve lost some of that, in going to work all day and doing jobs that require my mind to be turned to them. When I was at university, I was working in a shoe shop, which meant that I could spend all day thinking about philosophy and no one was any the wiser (pun unintended…). Now, however, my mind is taken up by spreadsheets and clients and to-do lists, and I’d like to get back to a stage where that isn’t entirely the case.

But, you know, philosophy’s not such a feasible career option these days, and a girl’s gotta make rent.

Your challenge for today: I dare you to find an old diary, notebook or blog, reread it and remember fondly the parts of yourself that have been swallowed up since you had to become a Responsible Adult.

Atheist Pilgrims


The Pilgrimage Project has been going on for seven years now (or maybe eight. Wow, is it eight already? It actually is), and in that time we’ve made a number of unexpected discoveries. One of those was the sheer number of people on pilgrimages who declared no religious interest at all.

The paper that I’m currently rewriting, per the ‘revise & resubmit’ guidelines given to us by the journal we submitted it to, looks at some of those atheists. Travelling a traditionally Catholic pilgrimage route which has seen a huge uplift over the past twenty years, many of them profess no belief in a higher being, but report similar experiences to the Catholics’ own.

Unfortunately our survey wasn’t set up to record people with no spiritual beliefs – although ‘Atheist/Agnostic’ is an option on the questionnaire, it’s not something we expected to have to explore in-depth, so we didn’t include much in the way of questions regarding the nature of non-belief.

My job at the moment is to try to make something of the data anyway. Part of the survey we did was qualitative, giving people the chance to explain their thoughts and experiences to a certain extent, and this was helpful. Ideally I’d like a larger pool, and some more broken-down data, but you can’t have everything in this world, and especially not in academia.

I’m intrigued by these atheist/agnostic pilgrims and want to know more about them. One of my favourite quotes from an atheist on one of the pilgrimages was:

“Over the last few years I’ve become a committed atheist, so I’m investigating this belief in nothing. That’s what I’m investigating. How much there is to this nothingness.”

I liked this explanation, and I’d be interested to see how this pilgrim felt at the end of the journey, but unfortunately he was one of those whom we didn’t manage to interview again.

Reading through the literature – specifically, looking at Bainbridge, Baker & Smith’s papers on atheism, I’m seeing a trend in people who identify as unreligious and/or unspiritual, but who still sometimes engage in activities that most would put under these headings. One of our atheists said they pray “several times a week”. I can only assume that, since they said they were atheist rather than agnostic, they took ‘prayer’ to mean the same as ‘meditation’, but I’d like to have explored it more as a concept.

I’m thinking about proposing a new study of atheists taking part in activities that would traditionally be viewed as religious, and talking about how they would define these activities in the light of their own beliefs. Whether there is a latent religiosity there, or whether they would class themselves as more spiritual than other atheists, or whether they are hardcore atheists engaging in such activities for reasons arguably completely unrelated to religion. As an atheist myself, for example, I can still enjoy the silence and stillness of sitting in an empty church. But what I experience in such a building is an appreciation of its atmosphere without attributing it to a spiritual being. I assume that the atheists we met on pilgrimages have similar thoughts, but it would be good to gather some empirical data to back it up.

I would also be grateful for any recommendations you might have regarding the current literature on atheism, and particularly on atheists practising spiritual rituals. And, of course, any suggestions to feed in to future research would be very welcome.

Out of interest, how do you identify religiously? Do you practise rituals or engage in activities that would traditionally be viewed as part of a different religious group? Why?

photo credit: Brain of the Sistine Chapel via photopin (license)